Slide Shows Ain’t Sideshows: Step Right Up

I’ll never forget my first audio slideshow…it wasn’t something I produced, but something I discovered serendipitously online. It was the fall of 2007, and by chance I stumbled upon “Just Words,” a series by Baltimore radio host Mark Steiner, which brought out the real voices of the city’s working poor: day care workers, ex-convicts, waitresses, etc. The segment I found was an audio slide show, with photos by Eli Lopatin, about a middle school girl who was a victim of gun violence:

It was the first time I experienced how photography could enhance an audio narrative, and vice versa. I’ve always appreciated excellent photojournalism and, of course, compelling radio. But it hadn’t occurred to me that they could work together so well together create something distinct and, in many cases, more powerful than video.

Shortly after I found Just Words, the series won a coveted Peabody Award. I showed their audio slide show at an NFCB conference and urged producers there to begin experimenting with this relatively new storytelling tool to make their radio station’s online presence more lively and engaging.

Like most people, when I stream audio online, or listen to podcasts, I’m usually multitasking. But an audio slideshow demands our full attention.  And the best ones will earn it.

Not surprisingly, newspapers (legacy media) are producing some of the most awe-inspiring audio slide shows. They have stellar photographers on staff and, in some cases, have tapped into public radio talent (including independents) to produce the audio. In their desperate effort to innovate and survive the digital transition, newspapers recognize the powerful draw of public radio and know that audio will engage their readers online in a more intimate way than print. Unfortunately, this content is sometimes buried under a Multimedia tab, making it harder to find and less enticing.

Here are a few examples of my favorite sound-slide shows emanating from the world of print:

The Los Angeles Times has a series called pop.u.LA.tion: stories from the sidewalk. It includes a clickable map that launches a diversity of first-person narratives that are aching beautiful to watch and listen to.

The New York Times did a wonderful series profiling New Yorkers last year called One in 8 Million. I named it one of the best multimedia offerings of 2009.

St. Peterburg Times has a similar series called Untold Stories, which also introduces “regular folks.” In a way, the audio brings color to black and white photos.

It’s no surprise that the Washington Post‘s Carol Guzy wins the top awards for photojournalism. This beautiful two-part audio slide show. tells about near centenarian sisters who live (and die) in each other’s loving care. It’s powerful example of how sound and story combined in a slideshow can be more compelling and respectful than video.

Short and Sweet

When I attended the Knight Digital Media Center multimedia training earlier this year, I learned how to use Soundslides, the premiere software developed for creating audio slide shows. It was fun and surprisingly easy. The instructors insisted that our audio slide shows be short, ideally around 2 minutes. That seemed painful at the time, but it was excellent advice, given that audio slide shows require undivided attention in our link-loving, driven-to-distraction, web surfing culture.

But length is a relative question. I am reminded, unfortunately, of a completely sexist (yet unforgettable) comment made by one of my teachers in high school. When asked how long our essays should be, he responded, “the length of a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to make it interesting.”

So, let me share one powerful package that falls somewhere around the knee. You won’t be watching the clock during this audio slide show from The Guardian.

It’s not only the major dailies producing slideshows. Other online publications, including nonprofit organizations, are getting in on the game, and a lot of their work has basic public radio sensibility. Here are two entirely different examples on different ends of the spectrum, in terms of both subject matter and production investment:

Fat and Fabulous, from the contemporary Jewish online magazine Tablet, producer of the weekly podcast VoxTablet, is a simple, yet compelling, presentation.

Condition Critical, a multimedia site produced by Media Storm for Doctors without Borders, will take your breath away.

I’ve found a treasure trove of links to journalism and multimedia blogs that share a wealth of information and guidance about audio slide show production:

CampFire Journalism
Poynter Institute
Teaching Online Journalism
Mastering MultiMedia
JProf: the website for teaching journalism

What’s clear to me, though, is that these resources are primarily aimed and people making the transition from photography/print journalism into multimedia and not for folks (like me) who are making the transition from audio to multimedia and trans-platform invention.

So, besides reading as much as you can (from the links above), my best advice is:

1. Watch a ton of audio slide shows.The National Press Photographers Association gives out monthly awards (1st 2nd 3rd place) for best individual and team produced audio slide shows. All of the winning work is archived right there on the site. 

2. Experiment with the software. Knight Digital Media Center has free online tutorials that can assist you with Sound Slides. Just today I read on the Multimedia Shooter Blog about an iPhone app called ShowCase that enables you to create slideshows in the palm of your hand.

3. Get a decent camera, if you don’t already have one, and learn how to use it. You might not win a Pulitzer, but at least you’ll get some images worth looking at. More resources on digital photography are available though the KDMC portal.

4. Consider Sounds Elemental, AIR’s intensive audio seminar in NYC. This summer’s session, called “Earth,” will feature a half-day with Amy O’Leary*, new media editor at the New York Times, who will help you take the elevator (instead of the stairs) to the top of audio slideshow production.

To Market, To Market

Right now, NPR isn’t acquiring audio slide shows from freelance producers. Keith Jenkins, Supervising Senior Producer for Multimedia at NPR, responded to my email inquiry, “we don’t purchase audio galleries from outside sources – the ones you see on our site are created here by the NPR staff. During our recently completed Knight Multimedia training program, we taught most of the radio producers and reporters how to create audio slideshows in Final Cut, but most of them still work with the multimedia team to make them.”

Other media outets are acquiring independently produced audio slide shows. Have you had success selling an audio slide show? Where was it? Please share that information via comments below.

Thanks to all the members of AIR who sent me links to their own audio slide shows (and others they’ve liked), including Joe Richman, Steve Mencher, Anna Boyko-Weyrauch, Janelle Haskell, Julie Subrin, David Anderson, Jake Shapiro, James Mills.

*Note added 4/22: Amy O’Leary reports that the NYTimes still doesn’t acquire audio slide shows from independent producers: “We produce all of our multimedia in house, for compatibility with our formats and standards. Freelancers who have successfully pitched multimedia have done so by first pitching a print story, and then demonstrating their multimedia credentials and pitching a companion multimedia feature.” I recommend reading Amy’s AIRBlast feature from December 2007: Crossing Media: from Public Radio to NYTimes.